How to safely use public WiFi networks

A photograph of a woman cheerfully working on her laptop outside a café.

Did you know that your privacy could be at risk when you connect to public WiFi?

Connecting to open public networks poses several security risks to your device and information. If you're using public networks for work tasks, you've also exposed your business data to potential cyberattacks.

Luckily, there are steps you can take to safely connect to public WiFi or secure alternatives.

For over 25 years, WEBIT Services has helped clients discover and apply effective security practices. It is passionate about knowledge, education, and online safety.

By reading this article, you will learn the dangers of public WiFi and what you can do to stay safe when connecting outside your home or the office.


The dangers of connecting to public WiFi

When you connect to public WiFi, you expose yourself to cybercriminals sharing the same network.

Connecting to public WiFi can be like a knight running onto the battlefield without armor. He may dodge a few arrows, or he may get hit. Regardless, he's taking an unnecessary risk.

Cybercriminals can identify the devices connected to the network and, from there, send malware disguised as files or fake updates. In addition, hacking tools allow cybercriminals to spy on neighboring device activity and steal information without detection.

Even if the coffee shop is empty, cybercriminals could access the WiFi network from their cars in the parking lot or a nearby picnic table. If they're close enough to connect to the network, they're close enough to access your device.

WiFi networks with a shared password in public spaces (i.e., a dentist's waiting room or an office lobby) have the same potential dangers as public WiFi. If the password is openly visible to anyone who walks in the door, it's not protected.

Luckily, there are ways to protect yourself even when you need an internet connection outside your home or office.


7 Tips for safely using public WiFi

1. Don't! Use your mobile hotspot or data instead

When in doubt, don't connect to public WiFi at all. If possible, use mobile data or your mobile hotspot if you must have an internet connection while out and about.

Your mobile hotspot will create a private internet network, in a way. Your laptop or tablet can connect to your hotspot instead of the public WiFi network for safer work or browsing.

However, set your phone so the SSID ("Service Set Identifier" or network ID) is hidden and ensure that your hotspot requires a password to log in. You can verify and adjust these preferences in your phone's connection settings.

Before you turn on your hotspot, verify your data limits with your phone provider. With unlimited data service, you can use your hotspot without issues. However, data limits may affect hotspot capabilities.

2. Turn off network discovery

If you must connect to public WiFi, it's a good idea to turn off network discovery.

Network discovery identifies which devices are connected to a network. Cybercriminals can locate your device to send malware or spy on your activity if you reveal your device while connected.

Turn off network discovery by updating your network profile preferences.

To change your network profile preferences, go to "Settings" on your device and select "Network and Internet" and the connected network's name. Then, click "Properties " and locate the "Network profile type."

You will want to select the "Public" option for any public network. This keeps your device undiscoverable on the network.

You can select the "Private" network profile option for safe, known, password-protected networks like the one in your home or office.

3. Don't allow your device to connect automatically

When using public WiFi, turn off the "connect automatically to known networks" setting or tell your device to "forget network" once you disconnect.

Otherwise, your device will connect to a known WiFi network in range without your knowledge, potentially exposing it to cybercriminals. This can happen whether you're in the building, driving, or walking past the location.

Always consciously connect your device to public networks. This way, you know where the connection is coming from, how long it's connected, and what's happening to your device while it's connected.

4. Limit file sharing

Cybercriminals within range can send malware directly to your device or steal accessible files if your device is open to file sharing.

Avoid this by turning off file sharing and AirDrop.

5. Use multi-factor authentication

Multi-factor authentication requires a randomly generated code to log into accounts or applications. So even if a cybercriminal steals your login credentials, they won't be able to access your account unless they also have the authentication code.

6. Use a VPN

If possible, use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to connect to the internet. A VPN automatically encrypts the data passing back and forth online, making it harder for outsiders to steal the information or see what you're doing.

7. Keep security patches up to date

When a manufacturer identifies a vulnerability in their hardware or software, they send out a security patch. Otherwise, you leave the vulnerability exposed and easily accessible to cybercriminals.

Apply security patches and updates within 30 days of their release to help protect your device and data.


Next steps for public WiFi safety

Public WiFi is not a safe environment for devices, particularly those that store sensitive business data.

To protect your privacy, follow these seven best practices for connecting to public WiFi:

  1. Don't! Use your mobile data or hotspot instead
  2. Turn off network discovery
  3. Don't allow your device to connect automatically
  4. Limit file sharing
  5. Use multi-factor identification
  6. Use a VPN
  7. Keep security patches up to date

Following one or a combination of these seven practices makes it harder for cybercriminals on the same public WiFi networks to access your device to plant malware or steal data.

If you have additional questions about security practices for public WiFi, talk to your IT provider or internal IT team. They can educate employees or help create procedures to help keep your company devices and data safe outside the office.

WEBIT Services has educated clients in cybersecurity and has helped clients establish effective security procedures.

If you are looking for a new IT provider, schedule a free 30-minute consultation to see how WEBIT Services can help.

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